The assumption among criminals, said Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher, is that they're not being watched.

That won't be the case anymore in a number of public areas of the county, such as parking lots for county parks, libraries and ice arenas, or in high-crime public areas. The county is installing a $40,000 network of surveillance cameras, which transmit to a set of viewing monitors that will be watched by community service officers, and trained and screened volunteers.

Fletcher says the surveillance system "has the potential to revolutionize public safety." However, Chuck Samuelson, executive director of the Minnesota Civil Liberties Union, wonders whether the benefit will be worth a loss of privacy to citizens.

The cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul and any number of private entities also make use of video surveillance.

Ramsey County's first eight cameras have been running for two weeks. Eventually, video streams from 30 cameras posted all over the county will be accessible from deputies' cars and cell phones, the sheriff's desk and, on a limited basis, from home computers.

The system's home base is the East Metro Real Time Information Center, located at the sheriff's headquarters in St. Paul. Last week, Fletcher sat back in an armchair at the center, and using a wireless mouse, shuffled among images on six television screens. To demonstrate the cameras' power, he focused the one that keeps an eye on the parking lot at Highland Arena in St. Paul, from about 600 feet away. The Snap-on Tools logo on a delivery truck snapped sharply into focus. On another screen, he was able to monitor the parking lot of a high-traffic Holiday Station in Vadnais Heights, from a camera stationed on the other side of Interstate 35E.

"Yes, it is scary," he said when asked about the cameras' ability to peer into activities. But he stressed that part of the volunteers' training includes a strong warning to them that the cameras are used in public areas only, for sheriff's business only. In addition, he said, volunteers working in pairs will police each other's use of the cameras, as will the community service officers in the next room.

For now, use of the cameras will be concentrated on county-owned property.

Keep in mind, Fletcher said, that when someone steals a purse from a car in the lot of a park or a library, it's often just the start of a series of criminal activity, involving, for example, identity theft, forgery or drugs. And whereas most surveillance video is kept for "historical purposes," he said, the real-time monitoring means these video streams can be used to alert deputies to suspicious people or activities, to intercept crimes in progress, or to get a real-time image of perpetrators, their cars and their accomplices.

Ramsey County's cameras are wireless and mobile, allowing for flexibility depending on where the hot spots are. The cameras put more eyes on the street without increasing staffing, Fletcher said. And volunteers can help patrol from a safe environment. The video is kept at the Sheriff's Office for 10 days.

Fletcher said he has met with police chiefs in the county and is working on creating partnerships with member cities.

He said he hopes that word of the technology will get to the folks thinking of committing crimes.

"It's scary for the criminals, too," he said. "The whole point is to be able to deter criminal activity because of the technology we have."

Voice of concern

Samuelson countered that the evidence that surveillance cameras reduce crime is "underwhelming at best."

He wondered whether the loss of privacy was a good bargain, especially because digital images are notoriously easy to manipulate and disperse, even with strict safeguards, he said.

"The mugging is going to happen and it's going to be real interesting to see if anybody gets caught with these things," he said. "The difficulty is whether or not you believe these things are an unequivocal good thing, and if we ought to be under constant surveillance. [Video surveillance systems] appeal to our sense of increasing public safety without demonstrating that they really do and they subtract a little bit of our public privacy every time they go up."

Maria Elena Baca • 612-673-4409